Open-road tolling creates new challenges, congestion

| 2/2/2007

Open-road tolling is supposed to be a timesaver, keeping streams of vehicles moving at highway speeds through the use of electronic toll collection and debit accounts used by drivers.

But in the greater Chicago area, where toll roads are nearly impossible for truckers to avoid, some regular users of those roads say open-road tolling isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

OOIDA members Thomas and Janis Thornton of Woodstock, IL, traverse the lower 48 states hauling military cargo. To get around Chicago or just to get to and from their home area, it’s inevitable that they encounter toll roads. So, they purchased an I-Pass transponder to use the cashless I-Pass lanes and hopefully save a bit of time.

Last year, Illinois completed a two-year project for open-road tolling lanes. The Thorntons said they felt it was in their best interest to use them, because slowing down or stopping to pay tolls consumes time and fuel.

When the I-Pass lanes are running smoothly, things are fine, the couple says – the fairy tale of time and cost savings ends there.

“I think it’s much more costly,” Janis Thornton told Land Line. “It’s probably gone to about triple what it used to be.”

She said their bottom line is constantly dinged by tolls, which makes them want to avoid the toll roads whenever possible.

“We avoid Chicago more now than we did before,” she said. “When we’re coming home off the road, we’ll go around to Interstate 39 rather than go through Chicago, partly because the tolls are more expensive now and the congestion is unpredictable.”

OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said he sees a trend emerging, with toll roads forcing truckers to pay up or go out of their way to find free highways.

“The situation in Chicago is unfortunately too common and it will occur with much more frequency as other states and municipalities embrace tolling as their preferred option,” Spencer said.

The Thorntons said they don’t believe open-road tolling solves the congestion problem.

The Chicago Daily Herald reported recently that the combination of open-road tolling lanes and cash lanes is causing backups at the Northwest Tollway River Road toll plaza north and west of Chicago – a road that the Thorntons try to avoid when possible.

The River Road plaza has been congested for years, officials have said. People with I-Pass may get to their destinations more quickly, while those without I-Pass may be stuck in long lines at the cash-only booths.

“Ironically, tollbooth backups was the issue that led to public outcry over the old system,” Joe Schwimmerman, director of DePaul University’s Chaddick Institute for Metropolitan Development, told the Daily Herald.

An Illinois Tollway spokeswoman from the state department of transportation told Land Line open-road tolling is supposed to speed things up.

“When we began introducing non-stop, dedicated I-Pass-only lanes in our system, we did so first for commercial vehicles,” spokeswoman Joelle McGinnis said. “Commercial vehicles, since time is money for them, they see a time-savings benefit.”

But those without the transponders in their vehicles are still experiencing the wait.

McGinnis said all of the Illinois Tollway plazas have the option of electronic lanes or cash lanes.

Spencer said no matter what system is being used, toll roads do not offer solutions to all of the state’s transportation issues.

“There is no intelligent way to do what is inherently a stupid initiative, and that’s what toll roads are all about,” Spencer said.

In response to the bottlenecking effect at some toll plazas, McGinnis said, the state is building two more cash-only lanes at the River Road plaza to ease the congestion during peak hours. Other areas are experiencing growing pains, too.

The Thorntons said they still prefer the option of using a fast lane whenever possible, even if the congestion problems aren’t totally solved. Be that as it may, they say they wish truckers got a discount for using a transponder.

“There’s no real break for trucks going through there and using a transponder and I think there should be,” Janis said. “That’s the biggest con to it.”

– By David Tanner, staff writer